The Dystopian Turn:
Michael Cline’s Portraits of America as a Still Life
There are artists who advance by anachronism rather than by innovation. One such artist is the painter Michael Cline. A creator of five-and-dime streetscapes of hobos, skateboarders, and beat cops—as well as the current batch of raucous still-lifes that make up this exhibition—his screwball social realist aesthetic comes together not just through bizarre juxtaposition, but also thanks to a genuinely perverse love of the funky and the strange. Every inch a studio painter, Cline also belongs to a long line of Frankenstein-fanciers, picture recyclers, and visual saboteurs. In a time that has scrapped its faith in progress, few artists appear better prepared to deal with today’s recurrent themes of disillusionment, information overload, and image glut.
In just a few years, Cline has established a magpie’s reputation for liberally mixing high and low styles, as well as for developing a remarkably original approach toward contemporary figuration that harkens back to painting’s earliest sources. His modeling, for instance, suggests not the expected naturalism inaugurated by Giotto, but the janglier forms of pre-Renaissance painters like Cimabue. Instead of using geometric perspective, the Cape Canaveral-born artist builds his compositions like a medieval iconographer, often stacking images one atop the other. Rather than blindly celebrate conventionally acceptable themes (like pop culture, technological connectivity, or even the advancement of his age-old medium), Cline regularly embraces—with the strength of a hard-bitten non-conformist—the visually suspect, the weird, and the fundamentally lowbrow.
A cross between Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Cline’s picture world resembles what a flea market might look like on bath salts—loads of thumb-worn and dog-eared modern and vintage visuals visioned alongside free-floating eyes, faces, and limbs. Among the more normal bits incorporated as painted elements into his latest group of canvases are the following: magazine advertisements, yard sale memorabilia, cabbage-shaped houseplants, The Berenstain Bears, and the kind of morbid symbolism that historically characterize Dutch still-lifes. Cline marshals all of these motifs into homespun visual parables. Additionally, the artist enlists his own set of wide ranging cultural influences—they veer wildly from Vermeer to Robert Henri, from Leaves of Grass to The Village Voice’s back page classifieds—to arrive at what amounts to a 21st century version of painterly Ashcan entropy.
Cline’s recent pictures constitute a vision of America’s allegorized cultural and social decay—from its recent economic slump to its attendant detritus (think government shutdowns, bankrupt cities, and the TV show Storage Wars). Consisting of collapsed or jerry-rigged structures that symbolize the teetering State of the Union, Cline’s misbegotten contraptions also serve as signposts for this artist’s antic Little Tramp aesthetic. Painted in a mixture of supermarket colors (cerise, terra cotta, kudzu green), somber blacks (the favorite background color for the classical still life), and wood-hued browns, Cline’s compositions both update tradition and distress current artistic convention. The result is a set of pictures that attach themselves firmly on both the retina and the limbic system. Few paintings today feel as vibrant or as disturbingly true to life as this artist’s cornucopia-like accretions of shopworn and mismatched Americana gone to seed.
A self-declared storyteller, Cline’s most recent set of stories-as-canvases involves the age-old genre of vanitas painting. A kind of still-life that flourished in the Netherlands in the 17th century, this once popular type of brush and cloth work made a point of portraying terminally symbolic categories of objects—skulls, fruit, landed seafood, dying flowers, smoke, hourglasses—as representative of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. In Cline’s hands, the moralizing Calvinist conceit animating these period paintings turns contemporary and open-ended, producing visual fireworks, art historical colloquies, and timely social, political, and cultural commentary. Taken down from the museum shelf, what had previously been canonical is brought kickingly back to life; what once looked stuffily European acquires the expansive American character of Zap Comix and Paul Bunyan’s ox.
Take the painting American Oort Cloud, for example. A picture-window arrangement of trompe l’oeil ephemera framed by a set of precisely painted two-by-fours, Cline’s canvas spills out rafts of images past and present while hovering, as the artist might put it, significantly “out of time.” Though the work contains, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, multitudes of associations—among its myriad details are cut flowers, a locust, several plants, a hand holding a cigarette, a painted cardboard placard featuring the number “1914,” and a Pieter Claesz-style reflection in a light bulb (intimating that the painting hides as much as it reveals)—the canvas’ cumulative effect is to be highly meaningful without being reducible to a single period or a single message. This is painting built to last as a stubborn enigma. To employ structuralist lingo, the canvas embodies the postmodern trinity: utterly self-contained, it deploys at once sign, signifier, and signified.
Ditto for all of Cline’s paintings and their deliberately capacious symbolism. Rather than stand in for specific slogans or ideas, Oort Cloud (the term refers to an ancient hypothetical cloud of comets orbiting the sun) and other paintings such as Ashcan, SubNot and Arranged Portrait, create what the artist once called “moments of perfect energy”—instances in which certain configurations of image, shape and color provoke intense feelings of strangeness, disjunction or disquiet, as well as ambiguous polemics about the world’s twisted ways. In these latest works, Cline chose to harness the vehicle of nature morte—the more fatalistic Romance language name given to the genre—to paint portraits of America as a still-life. Metaphors for a great period of transition and tumult in the American landscape, his new paintings not only dazzle as feats of figurative and metaphorical invention, they also illustrate a basic truth about great art: like an odd feeling, it’s visual genius often advances on crucial ideas before language gets around to explaining them.
Christian Viveros-Fauné is a New York-based art critic and curator. His writing has appeared in various publications including ArtReview, The Art Newspaper, Newsweek, and The New Yorker. He is a regular contributor to The Village Voice.